Last month, the New York Times reported on a recent Washington, D.C. study on the use of police body cameras. As part of the study, the D.C. Metro police department randomly split 2,000 officers into two groups – one group without cameras and the second group with cameras. Researchers expected to see a reduction in force incidents and citizen complaints for officers in the camera group. You may have read about the earlier Rialto study that claimed a 90% reduction in citizen complaints due to the use of body cameras. In the much larger Washington study, researchers found no difference in either the rate of force incidents or the rate of citizen complaints when comparing the camera group to the no-camera group.
While the researchers were surprised, and most of the media coverage on the study is focusing on that surprise, this outcome does not change our belief that body cameras are a valuable tool in modern policing. Even though we have been and continue to be proponents of body cameras, the Rialto study appears to have overstated the benefits of body cameras because of its extremely small sample size. As the D.C. Metro Chief noted in the New York Times article, the benefits of body cameras go well beyond whether the cameras will lead to a reduction in force incidents:
“But Chief Newsham said the cameras had a number of benefits that could not be easily measured: more accurate investigations, better training and at least one case in which the footage exonerated an officer accused of shooting an unarmed suspect (who was indeed armed). Most important, he said, they bolstered the trust of the community.”
Body camera footage is also a valuable tool in litigation, and we are now approaching the tipping point where jurors in civil rights cases expect to see video footage of every law enforcement interaction. The biggest takeaway from this study is a reaffirmation of the belief that cameras are a valuable tool, but cameras are not going to solve every problem for an officer or an agency. Because the widespread use of body cameras is such a new development, studies like the Washington, D.C. study are going to emerge over the next decade. There is value in examining these studies to see if the new research might lead to a different conclusion on best practices. For now, we see no reason to change course, and we believe that the use of cameras will continue to expand nationwide.
If you have any questions about the study or our thoughts on it, please post a comment below.